Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

China's Air Pollution Causing Drought

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 7:13 PM EDT

Increasing air pollution over China in the past 50 years has reduced days of rainfall by nearly a quarter in the eastern half of the country—home to most Chinese people and pollution. Bad air is now likely affecting the country's ability to grow food crops, as well as causing a flood of health and environmental problems.

The study in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres links for the first time high levels of air pollutants with conditions preventing the light rainfall critical for agriculture. The research suggests that reducing air pollution might ease the drought in north China.

In the last 50 years, southeastern China has seen increased amounts of total rainfall per year, while the northern half has seen less rain and more droughts. But the light rainfall that sustains crops has decreased everywhere. At the same time China's population has more than doubled and sulfur emissions from fossil fuel burning have exploded to nine times their levels 50 years ago.
 

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In Defense of Milk

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 9:40 PM EDT

For those of us who still drink milk and like it and have no trouble digesting it in any of its glorious guises, from butter to yoghurt... here's an intersting blog by Dave Munger at SEED on  current scientific thinking/speculation about why some of us can tolerate milk and others can't. Northern Europeans and Africans generally fare well. Southern Euros and East Asians, not so.

One analysis from a paper in PLoS ONE suggests the lactase gene evolved in Europe because there isn't enough sunlight to produce the vitamin D needed to take in calcium—so milk drinking helped meet that deficiency. In Africa the lactase gene evolved in conjunction with early milk-producing domesticated animals—helping boost protein intake.

Milk. It does some bodies good. Especially with chocolate or cookies.

Extinct Seabird Returns to Life

| Thu Aug. 13, 2009 9:08 PM EDT

Well, it was never really dead. The Tasman Booby, Sula dactylatra tasmani, described from fossils on islands off the east coast of Australia, went extinct in the late 18th century—victim of hungry European sailors, reports New Scientist.

But now a team of geneticists, paleontologists, and naturalists has found the bird alive and well and living among its own fossils and on a few islands off New Zealand. DNA analysis of six Tasman Booby fossils perfectly match the living birds known as Sula dactylatra fullagari. Paper in Biology Letters.

Henceforth, the resurrected and misidentified will be known as as Sula dactylatra tasmani.

Whatever we call it, this gannetlike seabird is another, and very welcome, Lazarus taxon (read John Platt at 60-Second Science) risen from the dead—along with the Nelson's small-eared shrew rediscovered in Mexico last month and the greater dwarf cloud rat found in a Philippine forest in 2008. Plus a few I wrote about in Gone: the Wollemi pine and mahogany glider in Australia, Jerdon’s Courser in India, takahe in New Zealand, and (maybe) the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the US.
 

Salmon Return to Paris

| Wed Aug. 12, 2009 10:44 PM EDT

It's been nearly a hundred years since Atlantic salmon swam the Seine upriver to Paris. Now they've done it on their own, without any efforts to reintroduce them. AFP reports that hundreds, maybe a thousand, swam past the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral this year.

And they aren't all. Only four species swam through Paris in 1995 when up to 500 tons of fish died upriver every year in foul pollution. Today at least 32 species inhabit the Seine, including lamprey eel, sea trout, and shad. Why? Because there have been massive clean-up efforts in the last 15 years, including construction of a new water purification plant.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Restore.
 

Hurricane Seasons Wilder

| Wed Aug. 12, 2009 9:47 PM EDT

Nature says so: the frequency and strength of Atlantic hurricanes has grown in recent decades. We're now at levels now about as high as anything in the past 1,000 years. The data come from sediment samples along the North Atlantic coast and are analyzed alongside statistical models of the past 1,500 years of hurricane activity. Interestingly, there was a peak about 1000 AD that rivals and maybe exceeds recent levels.

The study validates the theory that two factors fuel higher hurricane activity: La Niña and high surface temperatures over the ocean. If climate change continues to warm ocean waters (and how can it not?) we will likely experience more active hurricane seasons. This year's slow start is thanks to a newborn El Niño... though El Niño is changing too.
 

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